Saturday, November 15, 2014

It'll Be Fast: On Yes Means Yes

Globe and Mail.
I was struck by the report of an intimate exchange between a man and woman in today's Globe & Mail; the woman later questioned how consensual the act really was.  She said, "Please stop," and he responded, "It'll be fast."  Later she says "yes," then later again "no."

But that "fast" line struck me because of when else it's typically said.  We don't offer the cushion that an event will be over quickly unless we're well aware that it's not an event that's desirable.  I might say it when my child's about to get a needle, or when I'm enticing her to clean her room.  It implies that an event has little to redeem it except that it will all be over before you know it, and you can get back to more enjoyable pursuits.  So it's curious that it wasn't clear that the woman wasn't interested when speed was the best persuasion he could muster.

This is very complex issue, and I applaud how many of the bits and pieces are at least given a mention in the article.

It's a Huge Issue, and It has Barely Budged
"At least one in five women say they have experienced sexual assault that includes penetration by the time they graduate...Roughly one-third of the students surveyed agreed that rape happens 'because men can get carried away in sexual situations once they've started,'....believe that men 'can't help it,' and that drunk women who cross their paths have themselves to blame."
This is no different from attitudes in my high school in the early 80s.  But it felt like it all shifted for a time; it felt like people were gaining an awareness of these myths through an openness towards sexual discussion.  Now it feels like it's all come full circle back to the crappy place pre-rape shield law.  Actually it's so much worse.  We never had to worry about videos of an assault going viral.   The only evidence I have is anecdotal: in 1991, several teens in my school felt the need for a Gender Equality Club to discuss these issues.  Then, after a few years, that went away.  It no longer provoked like it once had. Now, in 2014, we've got another group of teens feeling the need for these kinds of discussion outside of a classroom setting.

Maybe in the in between time, too many of us were resting on our laurels, relaxing that we waged that war and won a couple legal changes and some attitudinal shifts that might protect us a little more.  How hard is it for people to remember that nobody should be doing anything sexual that they don't feel like doing?  But I think we might have to be vigilant about this one forever - even when times seem good.  It's an easy victory to have slip away.

On Coercion and Culture
"If you include unwanted touching or being 'coerced' into sex...the [sexual assault] rate rises to more than 50 per cent."
I cringe at the word "coerced" for two reasons.  First, I hate the image of adults, women and men, as childlike puppets, easily manipulated into doing something they don't want to do, to the point that if they say 'yes' loud and clear, it doesn't count if they later reveal they were coerced.  They didn't want to, but got talked into it.  It makes us seem so weak.

But, secondly, I hate the reality of that situation.  Saying 'No, thanks' doesn't just deny two people of some carnal pleasure, it can often be punitive to the objector.  If it were just about sex, then choosing a yes or no would still be a complex decision of physical attraction, timing, and feelings.  But in our culture, it's also about reputation.  For girls, being a prude isn't cool, and if a guy rejects a girl, he's seen as gay; both terms are still seen as insults.  What if it gets around?  Furthermore, people may be punished for a 'no' response in subtle ways.

Turn down a colleague, and he could make your days at work very difficult despite your efforts to smooth things over.  Some people are sore losers.  Or just losers.  So a choice to have sex often isn't always just a choice between having sex or not having sex.  It can be a choice between having sex you're not into OR being hassled for years by the proposing partner and whomever hears his/her slanted side of things.   This is the realm of the few men who get angry if "friend zoned," who somehow think a friendship should blossom into more in order to be worth anything of value.

From here

It's Not Always a Big Misunderstanding
"Human beings can read body language in the bedroom as easily as they can in other social interactions....[Sexual assault] is about someone making a decision to ignore the cues." 
Sometimes our cues get misinterpreted, absolutely.  Look a little too long at someone, and they might think you're into them when you're not.  And we have this strange idea that body language tells truths that our mind might not be aware of, so sometimes no verbal explanation can help sway a belief in the depth of feelings you appear to have for someone you barely know.  It does happen, and it can be frustrating experience for all involved.  

But too often misunderstandings can be an excuse for an act of aggression.  Most people can tell when someone's pulling away, and they stop.  Some people notice the gesture, but choose to ignore it.    It seems like such a little transgression, ignoring a gesture, but it's huge.

The Legal Issues

The 'Yes Means Yes' campaign, "frames sex more positively, shifting the focus from what a victim did (or didn't do, or couldn't do) to the steps a perpetrator failed to take to proactively ensure consent."  Instead of someone needing to say "no" to stop it, now they need to say "yes" before beginning AND throughout.  Without a clear "yes," it's assault.   "If it's not loud and clear, its not consent."  

But it will ever be difficult to determine what happened behind closed doors.  Nothing short of cameras everywhere will alleviate that problem.  A false accusation that gets thrown out of court can be enough to ruin a life, but so can a real sexual assault.  The worst reality is that it sometimes takes more than one transgression by a perpetrator (of accusations or assaults) to get any action from the courts because of the complexity of the issue.  I do think we need to err on the side of believing the alleged assault victim when in doubt, however, but that's a post for another day.  Laura does a good job of explaining that in this post, where she says, in part, "I understand that there are false accusations of rape. They are rare, but they do occur. Sexual assault, however, is not rare."

There's also this Alternet post, which clarifies that rape and false rape accusations are not equivalent problems.

But It's So Awkward! 
"[T]here's a large part of us [that] wants things to be spontaneous and free - and it enhances our experience....asking permission is 'awkward' in that it suggests the guy, still usually expected to initiate sex, 'doesn't have game." 
Asking for, and giving, consent repeatedly throughout various stages of intimacy doesn't have to ruin the moment.  It's not a matter of taking a break to re-draft a contract to be signed in triplicate.  It's merely a matter of saying, "Is this good?  Does this work?  Do you want me to keep going?" from time to time.  If we're weighing reducing sexual assault with reducing the spontaneity of sex, then I think spontaneity has to take a back seat.


We've come a long way in our acceptance of all manner of sexual relationships and habits, but the one I think is still in the closet, is the desire not to have sex.  Abstinence-only education has become such a joke, that the choice to abstain has become denigrated right along with it.  If we put up ads to suggest it's okay, it comes across as pushing religious doctrine rather than acceptance.  But it's not the case that all men are always horny, or that sex is all every hormone-laden teen is thinking about.  There are a lot of other things we can do together.  Sex has to remain just one of many choices in order for it to be freely chosen at al.  

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